eClass 3: Acute and Chronic Stress

Stress can affect us immediately (acute stress) and over time (chronic stress).

Acute (short-term) stress is the body’s immediate reaction to any situation that seems demanding or dangerous, as an instinctive reaction that goes beyond a normal state of alertness and wakefulness.

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Tension is often the first signal of acute stress. Tense muscles are tight and feel "hard" to the touch. A tense mind makes us feel jumpy, irritable, and unable to concentrate. This is usually a signal that something about a situation, a relationship, or a condition requires our attention.

Stress acts like the light on the dashboard that starts to glow amber and may turn to red. Addressing the contingency has the effect of exercising control over it, and may provide immediate comfort and prevent the long-term effects of stress.

Common symptoms of acute stress indicate a rapid arousal of the body in response to the perceived threat:

  • Rapid heartbeat (increased blood flow)
  • Headache (increased blood flow to the brain and/or pericranial muscular tension)
  • Stiff neck and/or tight shoulders (muscular tension)

  • Backache (muscular tension)
  • Rapid breathing (more oxygen pumped into the lungs)
  • Sweating and sweaty palms (paradoxical thermal response)
  • Upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea (enteric nervous system reaction)

Less common symptoms indicate a shutdown of the organism in the presence of a real or perceived stressor that overwhelms the system, e.g. fainting, loss of motor ability, loss of speech, blurred vision.

Usually, signs of stress are also noticeable (in conjunction with physical symptoms) as having a more or less severe impact on thinking, behavior, or mood, such as:

  • Becoming irritable and intolerant of even minor disturbances
  • Feeling irritated or frustrated, with or without anger and loss of temper
  • Feeling jumpy or exhausted
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or focus on tasks
  • Worrying too much about insignificant things
  • Doubting one’s ability to do things
  • Imagining negative, worrisome, or terrifying scenes or outcomes
  • Feeling as missing opportunities because quick action cannot be taken

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Our response to acute stress depends on how intense the stress is, how long it lasts, and how we cope with the situation.

The body usually recovers quickly from acute stress, but it can cause problems if it happens too often or the body does not have a chance to return to normal, i.e. to a non-aroused physiological state.

Over time, chronic stress can have an effect on:

  • The immune system
    • Under stress, the body becomes more vulnerable to illnesses, from colds and minor infections to major diseases
    • In a chronic illness such as diabetes or AIDS, stress can make the symptoms worse
  • The cardiovascular system
    • Stress is linked to high blood pressure
    • Abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia)
    • Problems with blood clotting
    • Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
    • Coronary artery disease, heart attack, and heart failure
  • The musculoskeletal system
    • Neck, shoulder, and low back pain
    • Stress also affects rheumatoid arthritis
  • The gastroenteric system
    • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
    • Peptic ulcer disease
    • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • The reproductive system
    • Painful, erratic or absent menstrual periods
    • Decreased fertility
    • Erectile dysfunction (male) and orgasm (female and male) problems
    • Vaginitis
  • The respiratory system
    • Asthma is worsened by stress
    • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • The skin
    • Acne is worsened by stress
    • Psoriasis

Life-threatening or traumatic events, such as sexual abuse or war experiences, can cause not only acute stress disorder but also chronic stress and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Chronic stress can be the result of a host of irritating hassles or a long-term life condition, such as a difficult job situation or living with a chronic disease.

It can also be the result of a failure to return to a state of non-arousal within a reasonable time after an episode of acute stress.

In people who have higher levels of chronic stress, the stress response lasts longer.